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King County Executive
Dow Constantine

22nd Annual King County Employees Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration


Good afternoon. We are here to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who struggled tirelessly to ensure equity and social justice for all people regardless of race, gender, class or sexual orientation. He lived prophetically and it is in his spirit that I speak to you today.


Good afternoon. We are here to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who struggled tirelessly to ensure equity and social justice for all people regardless of race, gender, class or sexual orientation. He lived prophetically and it is in his spirit that I speak to you today.

In just a few days, millions of people will converge at the nation’s capitol to witness a historic event. The first African American will be sworn in as President of the United States of America – breaking through a barrier many never thought possible. I am simply elated and proud to have witnessed this movement for change.

President-elect Barack Obama’s story epitomizes the dream of Dr. King. One of his most remembered quotes is, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This dream was rooted in the ideology that America could and would eventually move beyond race, class, gender and the divisions they too often bolster.

The November election proved Dr. King right. This single event inspired hope in the hearts and minds of countless Americans and people around the world of all ages, colors, religions and regions.

This is the hope that supports the American dream. A dream that puts greater emphasis on the things we control versus those given to us by our creator.

Historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” and described it as "…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This dream is very much alive and well today.

We now find ourselves as a county, region and nation in a precarious place. Progress of this magnitude often breeds complacency and this is no time to become lax or comfortable.

Data from across the nation still indicate gaping disparities in health, socioeconomic status, and educational achievement between racial and class groups.

Disparity Data

A few weeks ago Public Health-Seattle & King County and its partner agencies released the 2008 Communities Count report. Everyone should get a copy of this report! It quantifies disparities that many of us suspect or know only through anecdotes. Like data showing that 15.5% of blacks and 29.2% of Hispanics over the age of 18 often ran out of food money compared to 2.2% of Asians and 5.3% of whites.

This report also indicates that in 2007, the median household income for blacks was only 51% of the median household income of whites. What’s even more remarkable is the fact that in 2000, the black median household income was 63% of whites’. As you can see, the gap has grown significantly in the last 7 years. And it’s not just African Americans who are affected. Other communities of color experience similar disparity growth.

A look at the health picture is also bleak. People of color, on average, have higher obesity and infant mortality rates. Stress exists everywhere. However, people in lower income brackets are more heavily affected by stress.

And with education - which is our most significant issue in determining equity in future generations - we too often see low income people and people of color not obtaining the education necessary for competing in the 21 st century. If we stay on this course, disparities will continue to grow in health, income levels, and overall quality of life.

And so I again caution us to not become complacent and let a dangerous social inertia set in. These numbers, these people, matter to all of us. They are us.

Equity and Social Justice Initiative

Last year, I launched the Equity and Social Justice Initiative. My cabinet made commitments for the year about what they would do to impact equity. Now almost one year after launching this initiative, we have many accomplishments to celebrate.

As part of our Equity & Social Justice Initiative, hundreds of people have attended town halls with elected officials and community leaders, moving towards a common understanding of equity and social justice, jointly searching for solutions.

Similarly, thousands of community members and county employees have held dialogues about the underlying causes of inequities, and discussed how they could each make a difference in creating a fair and just society.

In 2008, all executive departments in the county took concrete steps, based on my cabinet’s commitment, to address equity and social justice. We have also established an interdepartmental team to champion this work, and we are forming a community advisory group that will provide leadership and vision. Local and national groups are looking to us and our ground-breaking activities to comprehensively address the root causes of inequities.

King County has committed to ensuring that promoting equity is intentionally considered in the development and implementation of key policies and programs, and in making funding decisions.

We want to advance a shared agenda of fairness; spread burdens fairly; and help address historic patterns of institutional bias and discrimination.

To this end, we have developed an Equity Impact Review Tool. Departments have used the tool to help describe the impact of program reductions on equity when creating their business plans.

These accomplishments should be celebrated as a down payment towards our on-going investment in what our county could and should really be.

But we’re not done. This year we plan on tackling more challenges. A strategic plan is being developed and I’m calling on every county employee to use an equity lens when doing their work on a daily basis. From determining where we put affordable housing, to where we create parks, to how we conduct elections, we must ask: Who’s affected? Who’s involved? Who benefits? And who’s voice is not being heard? These questions will help us identify and eliminate social inequities wherever we can.

Our Action Plan this Year

So how do we do this? First, we have to commit to being a learning organization. We have to discover best practices in all our departments as they relate to equity. This includes looking at how race, class and privilege affect our decision making.

Second, we must find ways to engage in cross-departmental projects that impact equity. In working together, we accomplish more with less. This year, the Community Enhancement Initiative team was a leader in cross-departmental work. This interdepartmental team with representatives from Parks, Roads, Public Health, Sheriff’s Office and more, worked with community members to create a vision for revitalizing Skyway Park. It is now supporting the development of a community agenda for improving neighborhood quality of life, driven by the values of equity and social justice.

The synergy created by this type of cross-departmental work is inspiring and should serve as a model for how county departments work together and with the public to combat inequities.

Third, we must continue to engage our external community. The private and not for profit sectors in this county are phenomenal. We have tremendous tangible and intangible resources right in our backyard. And there is no reason for us not to maintain those relationships and seek to build new ones.

I expect the benefits of our efforts will be long and deep if we do it right. Our county’s viability and quality of life will increase. Our competitiveness will grow. And we will have been part of the next movement for change.

With just days left until the inauguration, I can’t contain my smile when I think of what President-Elect Barack Obama means to the generations of my family, especially when reflecting on the careers and activism of my mother and father and when looking forward to the futures of my children and granddaughter.

For all the angst people may have about the future, President-elect Obama made it clear that younger generations in particular are embracing the complexity of the world, and they are far more comfortable with diversity of leadership than previous generations. Despite Mr. Obama’s new approach to politics and leadership, it is the result of a very traditional, proven and long-heralded pathway to success: education, honesty, hard-work, self-confidence, and being prepared to seize opportunities that may present themselves.

This pathway to success should be the norm - not the exception - for every American. With our efforts in the equity and social justice initiative, we’ll get there.

I ask you to join me in continuing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and supporting the American ideal, the Worlds’ grand experiment, so that it will continue to move beyond words, dreams and hopes.

King County Executive
Dow Constantine
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